Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Boiling Lake

The Boiling Lake hike in Dominica had been on the list of things I wanted to do since I was last there, years ago.  After our fantastic trip to Victoria Falls with SeaCat, he was the obvious choice to guide us. 

We hadn't been sleeping too well, and the night before the hike was no exception.  A combination of non-stop reggae and jungle music from the beach until the early hours, a persistent rolling motion from the swell and the lack of wind in the anchorage meant that we were feeling far from fresh when the alarm went off at a quarter past six...We locked our dinghy to the dock by SeaCat’s house and found him ready to go, wielding bottles of frozen drink.  Our companions were Frank, a German in his forties from his steel yacht 'Anzer Zo', travelling with his wife and two small children, and a Spanish lady called Pepi who’d been staying with friends working on the island.  

As we drove towards the start-point, SeaCat had a proposition for us: did we want to do it the hard way, or the easy but less interesting way?  The basic hike has a reputation as one of the hardest on the island, but involves retracing your steps on the way back.  SeaCat suggested making it into a circular hike, by starting at the village of Morne Prosper, but – as he put it – it would ‘rough us up’!  Our answer was obvious: the more interesting route had to be the way to go!

We parked by the side of the road and headed up a path through a green, wooded area.  It could almost have been England.  The temperature was pleasant, much cooler up in the hills than at sea-level.  For the first time in months we were wearing proper walking trainers rather than sandals  - except Pepi.  We headed further up-hill and the wood became denser until we were in proper rainforest. The path was far from clear, and before long we were scrambling over roots and boulders to follow the trail. Pepi began to fall behind – was she (or her shoes) up to it?  Apparently she had done lots of hiking in the mountains, but it turned out that this was somehow always on the level, with no ‘climming’...

Charcoal Burners (reminiscent of a tropical Swallows & Amazons..!)
The rest of us were enjoying ourselves immensely.  The canopy overhead blocked out the sun, and the air felt moist and fresh.  The rainforest had been flattened by Hurricane Dave in 1979, and the undergrowth was relatively new, secondary growth.  The haunting sound of Mountain Whistlers accompanied our progress, a bird we never saw, producing a clear, constant note reminiscent of running your fingers around the rim of a wine glass. We climbed onwards and upwards (with occasional pauses to allow Pepi to catch up), SeaCat pointing out the names of the various trees that dwarfed us overhead. We stopped for a rest after a particularly demanding stretch, and SeaCat produced some grapefruits and bananas for us.  The frozen drink was a great idea.  As the day wore on the heat increased, although was never oppressive. 

We glimpsed views of the surrounding hills as we climbed. The trees up here were stunted and low, giving a fairytale feel to the landscape, named the Elfin Forest.  We emerged onto a ridge at 3000 feet with views of steam rising through the foliage.  We had reached the Valley of Desolation.  We headed down towards the more established path, our track merging with the usual route, which had steps cut into the soil. 

The portentously named Valley of Desolation
The Valley of Desolation is a bleak area with steam seeping through the smallest cracks in the yellowish, crumbling rock.  The sulphur smell was obvious, and we could feel the heat rising from the ground.  A bubbling stream followed the bottom of the valley, the water steaming.  SeaCat scooped hot clay from the rocks and smeared it on our faces, as a mudpack.  He went on ahead and, when we caught him up, produced hard-boiled eggs from the boiling stream.  

None Shall Pass
SeaCat with naturally boiled eggs.

Treading carefully, we climbed again to a plateau overlooking the boiling lake itself. Many attractions with similarly overblown, tourist-friendly names are a disappointment. Not this one! The steadily-rising steam allowed only occasional glimpses of the second largest flooded fumarole in the world, a 200-foot simmering cauldron of sulphurous water venting gases from the crust beneath.

It turns out that boiling lakes don't photograph too well..
We sat by the lake with a small group of other visitors and had a lunch of salt-fish, salad and local bread.  The return route followed the stream for a while and we swam in a series of hot-water pools, using vines as handholds to climb between them (cold water would have been much more welcome!). 

The path beyond was straightforward to follow, but very hard on the knees: prolonged, steep steps took us back up over a ridge before we gratefully began the descent.  Pepi was almost in tears at one point, but she had made it too.  I saw a large centipede emerge from a rock.  SeaCat shuddered, and explained that they were really quite poisonous…

Scolopendra Gigantea
The hike ended at Titou Gorge, another ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film location.  The gorge is artificially dammed, with a concrete changing area, and attracts plenty of visitors, but it was still a magical experience to swim through the cold water.  Smooth, black rocks rose steeply on either side of a deep stream, forming a narrow channel which we swum along to reach a small waterfall. The trees above us gave a green tinge to the light. 

Buttress tree

We drove back to the anchorage looking forward to catching up with Phil and Sara over a meal on Lochmarin.  Dominica had supplied another memorable day.

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